Foreign Office faces up to realities and begins to bring Zimbabwe in from the cold

Nik Darlington 2.57pm

Walt Disney said he always tried to look on the optimistic side of life, but was “realistic enough to know that life is a complex matter”.

Such is the sentiment of realpolitik spreading through William Hague’s Foreign Office, the theme of Peter Oborne’s column in today’s Daily Telegraph (and an aspect of foreign policy that Aaron has argued in favour of at great length on these pages).

Zimbabwe remains a target of ire. Outside the Commonwealth since 2003, with Robert Mugabe’s Zanu-PF still pulling the strings, the southern African state appears on the surface a long way still from being brought in from the cold.

However, amid the excitements of an oncoming Olympic Games, its security mishaps, banking shenanigans and the start of Parliament’s summer recess, the Foreign Office announced an important change of course.

On Tuesday, Foreign Office minister and TRG vice-president Alistair Burt announced that the Government wishes to lift many of the sanctions currently imposed on Zimbabwe. Considering Mr Mugabe’s repugnant past of massacres, human rights abuses and incompetence on a criminal scale, outrage at any reduction in sanctions would be understandable.

But would it be rational? That is the difficult question posed by Peter Oborne today. The full article is well worth your reading, but here are some key extracts.

"Many people who really know Zimbabwe have argued for some time that, while sanctions were of course justified by the scale of the human rights violations when they were imposed a decade ago, they have in practice been a propaganda gift to Mugabe’s Zanu-PF.

"More important by far, it is not just Zanu-PF which wants them lifted. So do its opponents. Morgan Tsvangirai, leader of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), told Mr Cameron in March this year that he was certain the sanctions regime should be dropped. Mr Tsvangirai would also like Zimbabwe to be readmitted to the Commonwealth.

"The fact is Zimbabwe has been a success story after reaching rock bottom during the hideous violence, accompanied by hyperinflation, of the 2008 elections… The political atmosphere [today] feels very different. Meanwhile, the economy…is now powering ahead under the skilful management of the MDC finance minister, Tendai Biti.

"[This new] position requires a great deal of political courage because it exposes ministers to the charge that they are going soft on murderers and dictators.

"But it also stands in a respectable tradition of British statecraft. There would have been no peace in Northern Ireland if ministers had not been happy to talk to men of violence. In Afghanistan, we now acknowledge that no solution is remotely possible unless Mullah Omar and other Taliban leaders are granted a central role.

"[There are] hideously complex moral problems that lie ahead as Zimbabwe enters one of the most dangerous, but most hopeful, election years of its short history. Meanwhile, Britain has taken an entirely sensible first step."

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TRG foreign policy brunch: Sir Christopher Meyer & Alistair Burt talk freely and widely

Nik Darlington 1.30pm

Former British Ambassador to Washington, Sir Christopher Meyer, and the foreign office minister and TRG vice-president, Alistair Burt MP, were the star draws at the TRG’s foreign affairs brunch in Manchester.

The discussion ranged widely over the Arab Spring, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, geopolitics and the US presidential race.

Sir Christopher said it was “absolutely right” that Britain and France led the UN intervention in Libya but in an implicit swipe at policy in Afghanistan and Iraq he emphasised that we must not “get enmeshed in the civil affairs of another country”.

Alistair Burt agreed that across the Arab world, developments will be guided by local tradition and we should respect that - even if it means the rise of Islamist governments.

On the US presidential election race, Sir Christopher Meyer said that President Obama “ought to be dead meat” but the Republicans have two significant strategic weaknesses. First, the position in Congress of the “hard right” Tea Party element “may win tactical victories on Capitol Hill but may lose them the country”. Second, the Republican party does not have a “credible candidate” to face Obama, apart from the “incredibly boring Mitt Romney”.

A member of the audience questioned the rise of China, but Sir Christopher said we had to realise “China is here to stay” and that “for a lot of countries, China presents a more attractive model of development than Western democracy”.

Sir Robert Atkin MEP asked about the US Congress’ movement to withdraw funding assistance to the Palestinian Authority. Alistair Burt said that this was “not a done deal” but the “view of Congress is not helping”. The UK Government supports the transition towards an independent Palestinian state, as does the US President.

Sir Christopher Meyer added that “the Israeli Government is barking mad not to see that a Palestinian state is in their national interest”.

The TRG is hosting a debate on the Human Rights Act later this evening. In light of the Home Secretary, Theresa May’s further incendiary comments today, this promises to be quite a heated event.

Egremont and the TRG at party conference in Manchester

Nik Darlington 9.15am

Party conference season is coming to a close. As hacks and lobbyists blearily KBO after the Lib Dem and Labour gatherings (see my Spectator Coffee House report from Birmingham, which seems an age ago), the Tory faithful are gearing up for a few days of fun and discussion in Manchester.

Building on last year’s hugely successful agenda, the TRG has an exciting range of events to look forward to.

On Sunday, the TRG hosts its Parliamentary Mainstream Reception (17.30-19.00) in the Fairclough Suite in the Midland Hotel (secure zone). The guest of honour is Francis Maude, the Cabinet Office minister and Paymaster General and the wine & canapes event is sponsored by construction group Willmott DixonParliamentary Mainstream is the parliamentary arm of the TRG, although membership is open to any Member of Parliament. The group has been revived since the formation of the coalition under the leadership of Jonathan Evans, MP for Cardiff North, supported by four vice-chairmen: Robert Buckland (Swindon South), Laura Sandys (South Thanet), Stephen Dorrell (Charnwood, and chairman of the Health Select Committee), and Andrew Tyrie (Chichester, and chairman of the Treasury Select Committee).

Monday evening sees the TRG’s Flagship Panel Debate on the state of the coalition taking place in Exchange 1 of Manchester Central (secure zone), at 17.30. Confirmed speakers include the Rt Hon Stephen Dorrell, the Rt Hon Sir George Young (Leader of the House of Commons) and Neil Carmichael, MP for Stroud and member of the Education Select Committee.

On Tuesday morning at 10.30 in the Midland Hotel’s Stanley Suite (secure zone) there is the Foreign Affairs Brunch, at which Foreign Office Minister Alistair Burt and Sir Christopher Meyer, Britain’s Ambassador to the United States 1997-2003, will be discussing the Arab Spring over a full English breakfast.

Later on Tuesday, 17.30-19.00 in Manchester Central’s Exchange 4 & 5, the TRG is hosting a joint event with the Society of Conservative Lawyers and Justice, titled “The Human Rights Act: too hot, too cold, or just right?” Confirmed speakers include the current Attorney-General, the Rt Hon Dominic Grieve QC, former lawyer Robert Buckland MP and the director of Justice, Roger Smith OBE. It will be chaired by another former lawyer, Eleanor Laing, MP for Epping Forest, and promises to be a hugely interesting occasion.

And of course, no Tory conference would be complete without the TRG President’s Midnight Reception on Tuesday evening, 23.00 until the early hours of Wednesday morning at ‘The French’ in the Midland Hotel (secure zone). Ken Clarke might be approaching half a century in politics but the Lord Chancellor and Justice Secretary’s energy and conviviality is indefatigable. An event not to be missed (for TRG Members only, however you may turn up and join on the night).

We will continue to blog regularly during conference, with our usual morning postings and live blogging throughout the days.